Mark Twain’s “Two Ways of Seeing a River” delves into the changes in attitude he experiences concerning the river after becoming a steamboat pilot. Essentially, once he gains knowledge and life experiences, he begins to take the beauty of the river for granted and loses his love of it. Mark Twain explains how something beautiful can turn bland or even ugly after seeing it numerous times, from a different perspective, or after gaining new knowledge and experiences.
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The structure of this excerpt is divided into three main ideas: Mark Twain’s initial love of the river, his gradual decline in attention for it, and finally, an inquisition if losing sight of beauty to gain something else is worth it. The first paragraph consists of mainly vivid imagery of the Mississippi River that Mark Twain describes. Twain, with this paragraph, is conveying the fact that a knowledge of the inner-workings of a river and what the features of a river indicate do not heighten the experience of it. In fact, getting to know something too well can make one lose attraction of it, and this is what happened to Twain. In the first sentence, when he says, “…I had mastered the language of this water,” he means that he was well-trained as a steamboat pilot. He describes this acquisition as valuable; however, he also blames it as the cause for him to lose “all the grace, all the beauty” from the river. In the second paragraph, Twain describes the gradual decline in attraction and attention to the river and its surroundings. He notices things not so he can marvel at them, but to use them, such as when he takes the image of a sunset and notes that it means “we are going to have wind tomorrow”. Twain then brings all the vivid details of the river from the first paragraph and introduces them again into the second, but this time, he describes how they indicate something other than beauty to him. This shows that knowledge and experience did, indeed, cause Twain to disregard the awe and magnificence that he saw in the river before. It can be seen that distance creates beauty, when in the first paragraph, “steamboating was new to me [Twain],” he was not acquitted with the workings of the river, and therefore he was more ‘distant’ from it, which created his attraction for it. In fact, he is aware of this, because in the third paragraph, he “pities doctors from my [Twain] heart.” He rhetorically questions whether or not a doctor can see the difference in the beauty of a flush of a woman’s cheeks and a disease. The main question he asks is whether or not gaining knowledge and experience of something worth is losing that initial perspective. More or less, Mark Twain is addressing himself, and possibly making the world aware of the merits to what they are trying to achieve.
There are numerous ways Mark Twain uses literary devices to create a sense of momentum and emphasize certain phrases. For example, in the first paragraph, he repeats the phrase, “I had lost something,” which emphasizes the significance of what he lost, in this case the ability to notice the beauty of the river. Already, this creates a sonorous mood, and the repetition creates suspense and a need to know what Twain lost. When he describes the beauty of the river and its surroundings, it is all in one sentence, which also shows the immeasurable amount of love he had for it that he could not take breaks when describing it. When reading it, there are also no pauses, and the continuous imagery constructs vivid images in readers’ mind which creates a suspenseful mood, and it feels as if they are also experiencing it along with Twain. This allows for a more related and personal effect on readers, and they can connect ideas in the text to their own life, which Twain seemingly wants to do in the last paragraph.
In the second paragraph, there are similar literary devices used. For example, there is another repetition like the last, where Twain repeats, “A day came when I began to cease,” to, “another day came when I ceased altogether to note them,” which creates the suspenseful effect on the extremity of what he lost, as done in the first paragraph with the repetition of, “I had lost something.” The repetition in the second paragraph is in the same sentence, and it creates the tone of remorse and regret. When Twain finally describes everything he has lost, he brings in the same details as in the first paragraph, but this time, he expresses what the details actually mean in reality, and disregards what they meant to him, and it can be seen that knowledge of something is blinding to the beauty of it. Again, it is all said in the same sentence, but it does not have the same effect as last time. Instead, it creates an anticlimactic atmosphere, and there is a reinterpretation of the initial understandings of the river, how the beauty of it is not reality, but subjective based on the observer. In the beginning of the paragraph, Twain describes how the world of the river was “new to me [Twain],” and how much he “drank it in,” but at the end of the paragraph, Twain is familiarized with the river so much so that he only sees the surface of it and not the “poetry of the majestic river.” This parallel structure creates irony because it goes against readers’ expectations, signifying what Twain has lost.
In the last paragraph, Twain provides interrogative sentences that invite readers to consider doubt or judgment on their own actions. Twain is referencing doctors in the paragraph; however, in reality, he is addressing himself and the world. One thing to note is that Twain always brings ideas from the last paragraph into the beginning of every new paragraph. This juxtaposition is to enhance his point from the last paragraph and contrast it with what he is going to say next. In the second paragraph, he contrasts his love of the river with the reality of it. In the third paragraph, he contrasts the loss of the “romance and the beauty” of the river with the question if it is worth losing that perspective for something else, such as knowledge. He is trying to make sense of the significance of gaining experience if in the end, it takes away the perception of beauty and love, and if one “has gained most or lost most by learning his trade.”
Overall, in “Two Ways of Seeing a River”, Mark Twain addresses the importance of understanding the extent of the merits of what people have. He questions whether experience and knowledge is more rewarding than the vivid perception of things and the ability to see meaning beyond their surface. Twain emphasizes how he went from a state of mesmerisation to nonchalance in regards to the Mississippi River, all because of his acquisition of experience and knowledge as a steamboat pilot, which he views as valuable but not worth the loss of his romantic and poetic perception of the river.
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